Style Empire continued after the Bourbon restoration to the throne of France. The Style is well understood in furniture and other decorative arts, but in painting, apart from the portraits of the Emperor Napoleon I, Josephine and a few of her ladies in waiting, we can see it as problematic. The problem is that we may find separating the Empire from its progenitor, the Neoclassicism and its progeny, the Romanticism as somewhat of a challenge. Nevertheless, the differences do exist, and to point them out, I would like to take a quick look at the painting by Auguste Couder, The Death of General Moreau.
What Napoleon’s propaganda machine had in mind was a paradox — it was a strange idea, the idea of compromise between austerity and luxury, perfectly conveyed by Aguste Couder in the picture through the combination of red and golden-yellow, simulating oriental opulence, as well as military camp, offering us both drum and bugle and most importantly the chief attribute of successful campaign, a mountain of loot. It’s not easy to combine opulence and austerity, but in this picture, I believe, the ingredients are skillfully reunited. The year is 1814.
Yes, the year is 1814. The defeated Napoleon has abdicated and Louis XVIII gives the first Painting Salon of the restored monarchy, where a young artist, Auguste Couder, a pupil of Jacques-Louis David, presents his work. And by the way, do you know who is the dying hero in the painting? Oh technically, this is a traitor to the cause of the First Empire, someone whom Napoleon accused, tried, magnanimously pardoned and exiled, and who in the course of subsequent years drifted to the enemy camp, that is into the service of the Russian Tsar, and by so doing, traced the trajectory for many of the Emperor’s veterans: in 1814 most of them find themselves in the service of Louis XVIII.
We get a sense of complexity of the subject matter. The dying general is an ex-hero of the French Revolution. The protagonist, perhaps unjustly accused by the First Consul Bonaparte, possibly jealous of his rival’s military successes matching his own, becomes something like an anti-hero. The peripety is well-known to the onlookers. It takes them to his last battle, where advising the advancing on Paris Russian troops, he gets his legs blown off by a French projectile. “Serves him well!” you imagine a patriotic Frenchman conclude at the Salon of 1814. Nevertheless, observe the royal white of the death-bed, the intensely zigzagging adjutant’s body ready to commit to paper the Moreau’s last words. Sh-sh! I can’t make it out. What is he saying? On my grave you can write whatever you like? I guess. The Russian Tsar Alexander-I very wisely arranges for the interment to take place in Saint Petersburg.